Law – 02 – The Story of Israel and Covenant

103 Law Cover

This is the second post in my brief series on the Jewish Law.

Here’s a link to the first post which has the contents of all.

Today we will have a look at the law as the story of the Jews and the covenant God made with Abraham. As we work through I will be creating an overall picture of the main events.


Genesis 1 – Creation

In Genesis 1.1-2.3 God creates the heavens and the earth. God created man and woman in his own image, after his likeness (Gen 1.26,27). He commanded them to ‘be fruitful and multiply, to fill the earth, subdue it and have dominion over it’ (Gen 1.28). God’s creation was very good (Gen 1.31). Genesis 2 provides a slightly different account of creation. Adam was created (Gen 2.7) and told to work and keep the garden of Eden (Gen 2.15). God told Adam he could eat from any tree of the garden, but not from the tree of knowledge of good and evil (Gen 2.16-17). If Adam ate of this tree he would surely die (Gen 2.17). Shortly after Adam’s creation, God created woman, for it was not good for man to be alone (Gen 2.18).

Genesis 3 – Fall

After some time the serpent came and tempted the husband and wife to eat of the tree of knowledge of good and evil (Gen 3.3-7). They did, so God cursed the serpent (Gen 3.14-15), the woman (Gen 3.16) and Adam (Gen 3.17-19). In this way Adam, as representative and head of humanity introduced sin and death into God’s creation. Sin and death increased in God’s creation more and more (Gen 4-11).

In the New Testament, Paul and John comment on the same themes. Sin and death came into the world through Adam’s sin, and so death spread to all men because in Adam all sinned (Rom 5.12). The judgement following his trespass brought condemnation to all (Rom 5.16,18; Jn 3.18).

103 2 Part Timeline

Genesis 12 – Promises

Some time afterwards in Genesis 12 God calls Abram. Abram was an Aramean when he was called (Dt 26.5). He was not an Israelite or a Jew and had not received the Jewish law. Think of him at the start as a Gentile.

God commands him to leave his country (Gen 12.1) and makes several promises to him. These promises are;

1) ‘I will make of you a great nation.’ (Gen 12.2)

2) ‘I will bless you.’ (Gen 12.2)

3) ‘I will make your name great so you will be a blessing.’ (Gen 12.2)

4) ‘I will bless those who bless you and to him who dishonours you I will curse.’ (Gen 12.3)

5) ‘In you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.’ (Gen 12.3)

So Abram went as the Lord told him and when he got to the land God made another promise.

6) ‘To your offspring I will give this land.’ (Gen 12.7)

Implying Abraham will have offspring and promising they will receive the land promised.

Genesis 13

In Genesis 13 God promises;

7) to give land to Abram and his offspring forever (Gen 13.15), and

8) to make his offspring as the dust of the earth. (Gen 13.16)

Summarising both chapters. God’s promises to Abram in Genesis 12-13 consist of;

  • promises for Abram and
  • promises through Abram.

God’s promises assume the fall and the introduction of sin and death into creation as per Genesis 3.

a) blessings for Abram and his offspring

I’ve divided up the blessings into two kinds. The ‘blessings’ are promises of kingdom and salvation.

God’s promised kingdom blessings are those of people (promises of offspring 1,6,7,8), land (promises 6,7) and rule (Gen 17.6; assumed from 1 Sam 8.7, to be promised again in 2 Sam 7.12-13; cf 1 Chr 28.4-5).

I mentioned above God’s promises assume the fall and the introduction of sin and death into creation. Hence in some way, God’s promises (described as blessings) assure Abram and his offspring of eventual salvation from sin and death (promise 2; cf. Acts 3.25-26; Tit 1.2-3; 2 Pet 1.3-4).

The remaining promise 4 is of protection, reward and curse for those dealing with Abram and his offspring.

b) blessings through Abram and his offspring

These ‘blessings’ I assume describe the vocation of Abram and his offspring. Abram will be a blessing to others (promise 3). Through Abram all the families of the earth shall be blessed (promise 5).

Genesis 15 – Covenant

In Genesis 15 the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision. The Lord says,

‘Fear not Abram, I am your shield, your reward shall be very great.’ (Gen 15.1)

103 So shall your seed be

Abram understands this promised ‘reward’ to be offspring. He will have lots of children. But he has none as yet. So he questions how the promise will be fulfilled (Gen 15.2). The Lord brings him outside and says,

‘Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them.” (Gen 15.2)

God reiterates his promise,

“So shall your offspring be.’ (Gen 15.5)

Abram believed the LORD, and God regarded Abram’s belief in the promise of a huge family as righteousness (Gen 15.6).

God then reiterates his promise of land (Gen 15.7), and Abram questions as to how he will know he and his offspring will possess it (Gen 15.8). God commands Abram to setup an ancient ritual associated with covenants. He cuts up various animals in two and lies them side by side.

A smoking fire pot and flaming torch passed between the pieces of cut up animals signifying the one-sided commitment of the Lord to bring his promises (offspring, land) to fulfilment (Gen 15.9-17). The Lord reiterates the promise of land to Abram and his offspring (Gen 15.18). The promise is part of the covenant agreement between God and Abram. We can see this from the following;

On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram, saying, “To your offspring I give this land (Gen 15.18).

Lets have a brief look at what a covenant is.


“A covenant is an arrangement between two parties involving mutual obligations; especially the arrangement that established the relationship between God and his people. Covenant is one of the central themes of the Bible, where some covenants are between human beings, others between God and human beings.

It is not accidental that the two volumes of the Christian Bible have been called the Old Covenant and New Covenant (the word commonly translated “testament” means “covenant”).

The essence of covenant is to be found in a particular kind of relationship between persons. Mutual obligations characterize that kind of relationship. Thus a covenant relationship is not merely a mutual acquaintance but a commitment to responsibility and action. A key word in Scripture to describe that commitment is “faithfulness,” acted out in a context of abiding friendship.

Covenant is thus an interpersonal framework of trust, responsibilities, and benefits, with broad application to almost every human relationship from personal friendship to international trade agreements. In Scripture covenant is also the most comprehensive concept covering an individual’s relationship to God.

Divine-Human Covenants. The same basic characteristics of a strictly human covenant are present in a divine covenant:

  1. a relationship between two parties (God and a human being or nation), and
  2. mutual obligations between the covenant partners.

To the OT believer, religion meant covenant. OT religion was faithfulness to the covenant relationship between God and his chosen people; religious responsibilities for both the faith and practice of Israel were covenant responsibilities.

The concept of a divine-human covenant in the OT was not static. Although the fundamental character of covenant remains the same throughout the Bible, the specific nature and form of the covenant changed and developed in the course of ancient Israel’s history.” (Elwell, W. A., & Beitzel, B. J. (1988). In Baker encyclopedia of the Bible. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House.)

From the above the important concepts to note concerning covenants are;

  • Covenants have members
  • Covenant members make various promises
  • Fulfilling covenant obligations is called righteousness
  • Covenants involve blessings and curses for its members

103 3 Part Timeline

Take note of the wider context and in particular Creation and Fall in Genesis 1 and 3 respectively. God’s solution to correct the problems of sin and death in his creation is the covenant he made with Abram and his offspring. This covenant contains promises and blessings. On fulfilment these will bring salvation from sin and death to all the covenant members.

Salvation and righteousness are inseparable from the covenant the promises of God made to Abraham and his offspring.

The definition of ‘righteousness’ understood within the covenant is when a covenant member fulfills his or her obligations under the covenant. For God to be righteous according to the covenant, it means He must be faithful to and fulfil his own covenant promises. For Abram and his offspring to be righteous according to the covenant, they must believe in the covenant promises of God. Belief in the promises of God is applied consistently to all (before and after Gen 12) the Old Testament people of faith (Heb 11.39-40).

Provided Abram and his offspring continue to believe in God’s promises, they will be beneficiaries of God’s covenant promises of kingdom and salvation. God’s covenant promises also indicate Abram and his offspring have a specific vocation. That is, through them salvation will be brought to all the families of the earth.

Genesis 17 – Circumcision

In Genesis 17, the Lord appears to Abram and he commands him to

‘walk before him and be blameless’ (Gen 17.1).

Provided Abram does this, God will make the covenant between them and multiply Abram greatly (Gen 17.2). Abram falls on his face before the Lord, and God makes his covenant with him (Gen 17.3-4). God again promises offspring, that Abram will be the

‘father of a multitude of nations’ (Gen 17.4).

God then renames Abram to Abraham because of his promise he will be ‘the father of a multitude of nations’ (Gen 17.5). God promises to make him exceedingly fruitful, make him into nations and promises that kings shall come from him. God echoes his earlier covenant promises mentioned before in previous chapters (Gen 17.6-8).

God introduces further obligations (in addition to promissory faith) of Abraham and his offspring. They are to ‘keep’ the covenant (Gen 17.9-10). I assume keeping the covenant is part of the obedience language in the OT denoting what it means to be faithful to the covenant. For now, Abraham and his offspring shall be circumcised (Gen 17.10-13). Any uncircumcised male not circumcised has broken God’s covenant (Gen 17.14).

Exodus – Deuteronomy

In due time Abraham fathers Isaac (Gen 21). Isaac in turn fathers Jacob and Esau (Gen 25). Jacob fathers twelve sons (Gen 29.31-30.24). God was faithful to his covenant promises to Abraham.

Exodus 1 – Covenant Remembered

During their stay in Egypt, the LORD continued to be faithful to his promise and Abraham’s offspring began to multiply.

1 These are the names of the sons of Israel who came to Egypt with Jacob, each with his household: 2 Reuben, Simeon, Levi, and Judah, 3 Issachar, Zebulun, and Benjamin, 4 Dan and Naphtali, Gad and Asher. 5 All the descendants of Jacob were seventy persons; Joseph was already in Egypt. 6 Then Joseph died, and all his brothers and all that generation. 7 But the people of Israel were fruitful and increased greatly; they multiplied and grew exceedingly strong, so that the land was filled with them. (Ex 1:1–7)

As a result they were put in slavery by the Egyptians (Ex 1.8-22).

23 During those many days the king of Egypt died, and the people of Israel groaned because of their slavery and cried out for help. Their cry for rescue from slavery came up to God. 24 And God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob. 25 God saw the people of Israel—and God knew. (Ex 2:23–25)

God remembers his covenant with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. So he sets out to save Israel.

Exodus 3 – Moses sent

The LORD calls Moses into service.

7 Then the LORD said, “I have surely seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt and have heard their cry because of their taskmasters. I know their sufferings, 8 and I have come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey, to the place of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. 9 And now, behold, the cry of the people of Israel has come to me, and I have also seen the oppression with which the Egyptians oppress them. 10 Come, I will send you to Pharaoh that you may bring my people, the children of Israel, out of Egypt.” (Ex 3:7–10)

Between chapters of 4 to 12 of Exodus the LORD displays his power over Egypt and then came the Passover.

Exodus 12 – Israel rescued from slavery

Each household was to select a lamb from their flocks and kill it at twilight.

7 “Then they shall take some of the blood and put it on the two doorposts and the lintel of the houses in which they eat it. 8 They shall eat the flesh that night, roasted on the fire; with unleavened bread and bitter herbs they shall eat it. 9 Do not eat any of it raw or boiled in water, but roasted, its head with its legs and its inner parts. 10 And you shall let none of it remain until the morning; anything that remains until the morning you shall burn. 11 In this manner you shall eat it: with your belt fastened, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand. And you shall eat it in haste. It is the LORD’s Passover. 12 For I will pass through the land of Egypt that night, and I will strike all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, both man and beast; and on all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments: I am the LORD. 13 The blood shall be a sign for you, on the houses where you are. And when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague will befall you to destroy you, when I strike the land of Egypt. (Ex 12:7–13)

The people of Israel did as commanded and the LORD struck down all the Egyptian firstborn. The Egyptians feared for their lives and urged the Israelites to leave as soon as possible. Pharaoh changed his mind and pursued them. Guided by the pillars of cloud and fire Israel crossed the Red Sea, but when the Egyptians followed after the sea came in one them and they were all drowned (Ex 14).

30 Thus the LORD saved Israel that day from the hand of the Egyptians, and Israel saw the Egyptians dead on the seashore. 31 Israel saw the great power that the LORD used against the Egyptians, so the people feared the LORD, and they believed in the LORD and in his servant Moses. (Ex 14:30–31)

Exodus 19-20 – The Law of Moses

The LORD led them to Mount Sinai (also called Horeb). Since he has saved them from the Egyptians and slavery he has a few things to say to them through Moses.

2 They set out from Rephidim and came into the wilderness of Sinai, and they encamped in the wilderness. There Israel encamped before the mountain, 3 while Moses went up to God. The LORD called to him out of the mountain, saying, “Thus you shall say to the house of Jacob, and tell the people of Israel: 4 You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. 5 Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; 6 and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. These are the words that you shall speak to the people of Israel.” (Ex 19:2–6)

First – Israel is his covenant people.

Then he calls Moses up again and gives his the Jewish law. We will look at this in closer detail in the next post.

Second – Israel is to adhere to the covenant law.

The law takes a similar form to an Ancient Near Eastern ‘Suzerain Treaty’.

Suzerain Treaties

“In the Ancient Near East, treaties between kings was common. These were treaties drawn up among equals and mostly outlined agreements to honor each other’s boundaries, to maintain trade relations, and return run-away slaves. These treaties are preserved in the Mari Tablets and in the Amarna texts.

Also preserved in these collections are treaties drafted between a superior and his inferior. If the relationship was familial or friendly, the parties are referred to as “father” and “son.” If the relationship is bereft of kindness and intimacy, the parties are referred to as “lord” and “servant,” or “king” and “vassal,” or “greater king” and “lesser king.” The greater king is the suzerain and the lesser king is a prince, or a lesser lord in the service of the greater king. The lesser lord is a representative of all the common people who are under the protection of the greater king. He enforces the treaty among the masses.

These Suzerain/Vassal treaties open with two sections:

  1. The identification of the Suzerain by his name and titles;
  2. The historical survey of the Suzerain’s dealings with the vassal.

The purpose is to illustrate to the vassal how much the Suzerain has done to protect and establish the vassal who therefore owes submission and allegiance to the Suzerain. These two sections are referred to as the “Preamble.”


20 And God spoke all these words, saying, 

2 “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. (Ex 20:1–2)

5 And Moses summoned all Israel and said to them, “Hear, O Israel, the statutes and the rules that I speak in your hearing today, and you shall learn them and be careful to do them. 2 The LORD our God made a covenant with us in Horeb. 3 Not with our fathers did the LORD make this covenant, but with us, who are all of us here alive today. 4 The LORD spoke with you face to face at the mountain, out of the midst of the fire, 5 while I stood between the LORD and you at that time, to declare to you the word of the LORD. For you were afraid because of the fire, and you did not go up into the mountain. He said:

6 “ ‘I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. (Dt 5:1–6)

The next section of these treaties list the “stipulations.” What the vassal is required to do is spelled out in principal and detail. This section is often concluded with the requirement that the vassal deposit his copy of the treaty in his temple, where he is to occasionally read and study it to refresh his memory concerning his duties.


3 “You shall have no other gods before me.

4 “You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. 5 You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, 6 but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.

7 “You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain, for the LORD will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain.

8 “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. 9 Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, 10 but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates. 11 For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.

12 “Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land that the LORD your God is giving you.

13 “You shall not murder.

14 “You shall not commit adultery.

15 “You shall not steal.

16 “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.

17 “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male servant, or his female servant, or his ox, or his donkey, or anything that is your neighbor’s.” (Ex 20:3–17)

Include as well all the remaining laws the LORD gives Moses and Aaron in Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers. We will look at this in greater detail tomorrow.

The last section of these treaties contains the blessings and curses of the Suzerain. If the stipulations are met by the vassal, he will receive the Suzerain’s blessings, which are listed. If the vassal fails to meet the stipulations, he will receive the Suzerain’s curses, which are also listed.


28 “And if you faithfully obey the voice of the LORD your God, being careful to do all his commandments that I command you today, the LORD your God will set you high above all the nations of the earth. 2 And all these blessings shall come upon you and overtake you, if you obey the voice of the LORD your God. … (Dt 28:1–2f)

15 “But if you will not obey the voice of the LORD your God or be careful to do all his commandments and his statutes that I command you today, then all these curses shall come upon you and overtake you. (Dt 28:15)

The Suzerain would keep one copy of the treaty and the vassal would keep one copy of the treaty.

A number of ratifying ceremonies were used depending upon the era and culture. But the most widely used rite was that of cutting the bodies of animals in halves and placing them in two rows with enough space between for the two parties of the treaty to walk side by side. As they walked between the pieces, they were vowing to each other, “May what has happened to these animals, happen to me if I break this covenant with you.” (


7 And he said to him, “I am the Lord who brought you out from Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land to possess.” 8 But he said, “O Lord God, how am I to know that I shall possess it?”

9 He said to him, “Bring me a heifer three years old, a female goat three years old, a ram three years old, a turtledove, and a young pigeon.” 10 And he brought him all these, cut them in half, and laid each half over against the other. But he did not cut the birds in half. 11 And when birds of prey came down on the carcasses, Abram drove them away.

12 As the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell on Abram. And behold, dreadful and great darkness fell upon him. 13 Then the Lord said to Abram, “Know for certain that your offspring will be sojourners in a land that is not theirs and will be servants there, and they will be afflicted for four hundred years. 14 But I will bring judgment on the nation that they serve, and afterward they shall come out with great possessions. 15 As for you, you shall go to your fathers in peace; you shall be buried in a good old age. 16 And they shall come back here in the fourth generation, for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete.”

17 When the sun had gone down and it was dark, behold, a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces. (Gen 15.7-17)

The covenant, God, Abraham and his offspring, God’s promises, Israel and their rescue from Egypt and the Jewish law are all interrelated.

From Mount Sinai the LORD leads Israel into the wilderness for many years. Until he completes his promise and they take over the promised land.

Initial elements in the Story of Israel

In summary, the main elements of the Story of the Jews are;

  1. Story; The call of Abraham and the giving of the covenant
  2. Law; Abraham and his offspring are commanded to be circumcised
  3. Story; Abraham fathers many offspring
  4. Story; These offspring are enslaved by the Egyptians
  5. Story; God redeems the Israel from slavery
  6. Law; God adds to the covenant and gives them the Jewish law (430 years afterward)
  7. Story; God leads them into the promised land (Canaan)

103 8 Part Timeline

This finishes today’s post. Tomorrow we will have a brief look at Paul and the Law.

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